Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Unbroken

by Stephen Drees

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Laura Hillenbrand's New York Times bestseller turned into Hollywood movie tells the life story of Louis Zamperini - a man who survives the trauma of war and its aftermath on his life. I read the book and saw the movie. There was something about this character - this person - that kept me glued to the story.

How is it that some people have that special "something" that enables them to get through seemingly insurmountable obstacles and tragedy? And what is that something that gets them through? What would it be like to meet someone like this - talk with them - learn from them?

On February 23, 2014, a senseless act of violence befell the son of a dear friend of mine. At a private, college gathering of students and fraternity brothers, marauding football players in town from another school stormed and invaded their apartment for no apparent reason other than to make trouble. After repeatedly being asked to leave, a fight broke out and spilled into the front yard and driveway.

My friend's son was trying to break up the fight when he was struck hard with a punch to the head that he never saw coming. He went into a freefall onto the pavement, producing a traumatic blow to his head. With his skull shattered and bleeding profusely, police arrived and he was sent via MEDEVAC to a regional medical center that scrambled to save his life.

Jackie was barely a semester into his freshman year - at the same school my friend Jim and I had attended together and where he met his wife Lisa. If that wasn't enough, he was also pledging the same fraternity we had been in. It was surreal and it hit very close to home. This was a young man who only months before had graduated from high school - was happy, healthy and looking forward to college.

Within hours, my phone was buzzing with texts as old college friends heard about the tragedy; they were all reaching out and trying to get information. Late the next evening, I called Jim and Lisa expecting it to roll into voicemail and I was surprised when they picked up the phone. They were only 24 hours into their saga and clearly in shock and emotional trauma.

I told them how much I loved them and that I would be praying for Jackie - that I am a lay member of a monastic community and religious order that would be praying for them as well. I told them I would be sending St. Benedict medals and urged them to carry or wear the medal as a sign of God's presence and protection.

They had been told it was possible Jackie wouldn't live, but they were asking God for His mercy and blessing. They were praying for a miracle. Everyone in their extended network of family and friends was praying for a miracle. People who didn't even know Jackie, but had heard the story from the media or from word-of-mouth, were praying for a miracle.

While the desperation of the situation was very real, one could also feel that something extraordinary was happening. Jackie was pulling people together toward a common purpose through prayer. That in itself was a miracle.

Matthew 21:22

"Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive." 

Jackie was in a coma for weeks, his body battling against swelling and bleeding of the brain, dangerously high intracranial pressure, a blood clot, a bolt in his head. There seemed no end to the medical hurdles. Jackie fought off MRSA, meningitis, dangerously high blood pressure and half a dozen trips to the emergency operating room.

When the odds seemed impossibly slim and remote, Jackie, his sister, parents, extended family, and countless doctors, nurses and caretakers soldiered on.

After 275 days and nights in hospitals and rehabs, Jackie and his parents went home for Thanksgiving in 2014. He had survived this terrible ordeal, but it was only the beginning of the next phase of recovery. With an amazing and resilient spirit, Jackie continues to endure rehab sessions that push his body and mind. He works to reignite the injured parts of his brain, little by little, day by day.

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Recently, I had the privilege to meet Jackie in person. After everything I had heard about his story, I didn't know what to expect. But there he was, waiting at the front door to greet me with a St. Benedict medal dangling from a necklace hanging outside his shirt. He obviously showed some physical signs of his ordeal, but he was standing upright without any assistance, able to converse and totally coherent - and actually quite animated!

Jackie, Jim, Lisa and I spent several hours talking over dinner. I presented him with a fraternity shirt, which he wore the rest of the night and the next day. Later that evening when he was going to bed, Jim and Lisa asked if I would join them as they put Jackie down for the night. I grabbed my breviary, walked upstairs and sat down on the edge of his bed. With holy water, I traced the sign of the cross on his forehead and then proceeded to pray over him: 

Compline

"God come to our assistance, Lord make haste to help us…"

"Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled…"

"Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep;

that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep rest in his peace."

 

Jackie's fight is not over. His goal is to return to college at his parent's alma mater and to be an active brother in his dad's fraternity. Jackie's story has changed everyone who has heard it or has had the privilege to meet him in person. However, his story isn't really about the violence that started it all. It's about what's happened since that terrible night.

It's a story of faith, hope and love. It's a story about parents - family and friends - doctors, nurses and caregivers who hung in there when things looked so bleak. It's a story about counting on God and thanking Him for His blessings. And it's a story of a young man who is tender in spirit but tough as nails. Jackie - a modern-day Louis Zamperini - has shown a courage and determination this humble oblate will never forget. You can read about Jackie's story and his marathon to recovery at http://www.prayforjackie.com

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Jeremiah 29:11

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD,

"plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

 

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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